This year, we came with the knowledge that there was unrest in the ancient city. We didn’t know how we would handle it, but we soon discovered that life goes on even in turmoil.
On Saturday, May 15, we wanted to exchange dollars for Euros in downtown Athens, in the best part of the city where the exchange rates were most competitive. Actually, we wanted to exchange currency there because we couldn’t find anyplace else to do it! Banks, as a rule, do not engage in currency exchange here unless one already has a bank account. We don’t, so they wouldn’t.
We were not able to take care of this simple matter that day because of the Communists. One of the Communist headquarters in Athens is near the apartment where we are staying in Zographou (one of the districts of the city). In fact, it’s two blocks away. But they’ve been good neighbors so far, though their ‘power to the people!’ (or, more literally, ‘the people are power!’ [δύναμις ο λαός!]) and announcements of Marxist rallies that were plastered all over the neighborhood made the place a little less inviting.Remarkably, when the Communists demonstrate, it is expected that they will vandalize and act violently and that, therefore, observers will be few.
The Communists had chosen Saturday to protest in the town square. (We found out that this was a bit unusual, since normally demonstrators held their rallies on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Saturday is a big shopping day, so it’s a bit inconvenient.) No taxis would take us there. I wanted to go and at least take some pictures of the protest. But we were strongly advised not to walk to the place either. Apparently, the Communists don’t like it when you take their pictures while they are breaking windows in stores and cars. They prefer to do their mischief with no one watching. At first, I thought: Why bother to demonstrate without publicity? But I soon realized that it’s a good ploy: everyone knows the destruction they leave in their wake but if no individuals are specifically noticed doing the crime, they all walk away scot-free. Remarkably, when the Communists demonstrate, it is expected that they will vandalize and act violently and that, therefore, observers will be few. We were told that if we went through that part of town we could expect our gear to be trashed and ourselves to be seriously roughed up. After long and careful consideration, we decided not to get money on Saturday.
But since we were running out of funds, we decided to get downtown before we ended up begging on the streets. Not as many establishments accept credit cards in Greece as we are accustomed to in the States; cash is essential for food, and often for car rentals and even hotels. Wednesday, May 19, we decided to chance it.
We drove into town to complete our work at a major museum. We didn’t realize that there were protesters out today again—and in several places! Major streets were roped off to allow the protesters their say. Two guys on our team had to stay behind. Two of us took a taxi to the exchange bureau. We drove through another group of protesters. We asked the taxi driver what they were protesting, and he wasn’t sure. There are so many protests in Athens these days, it’s hard to keep track. They were all quite civil, largely because there was a huge police presence. The police did not want another incident like they had a couple of weeks ago when the smoke from an incendiary device that went off in a bank asphyxiated three people (one of whom was pregnant). We got our cash unceremoniously and without incident. The four of us went our separate ways for various tasks left to do. I walked back to the museum. On the way, a large, raucous, political rally was being held at Athens University. I was twenty feet away from it. I don’t know if it turned ugly or not.
As I was walking back to the museum, and getting lost (as is my custom), I meandered down a street across from a building where a large crowd had gathered. The protesters were surrounded by scores of police who were decked out in anti-riot gear: heavily armed, with shields, protective helmets, and some even with body armor. I thought about crossing the street and getting some pictures with my iPhone up close, but decided that if I did so I might be mistaken for a protester or journalist. I decided to stay on my side of the street. But I did get a few pictures. Below is one of them.
All in all, Athens has been quite safe for us. A bit rowdy at times, but not really dangerous. This is a great city with unbelievable treasures, and we are grateful to be a small part of preserving some of them digitally.